The Boston Celtics have been, perhaps, the most disappointing team in the Eastern Conference thus far. They are ranked 7th in the Eastern Conference with a 26-26 record. They have a solid +1.6 point differential, but they struggle to convert this differential into actual wins. The Celtics have had multiple issues that have lead to this struggle.
The Celtics are a team that should be an elite offense, but they’ve struggled to work their way into the top 10 in the league on that end. They are currently 12th in the NBA on offense with a 111.9 offensive rating. This is because they struggle to generate rim pressure and they rely heavily on their pull-up shooting.
Defensively, Boston is fourth in the NBA with a 110.3 defensive rating. Brad Stevens is an excellent defensive coach and he gets teams to punch above their weight. Marcus Smart missed significant time and the team remained afloat without him. They just traded Daniel Theis, but Robert Williams III should step up into his role admirably.
The Celtics almost certainly have the role of working themselves into a homecourt advantage position in the playoffs. The Celtics are currently one game behind the Hornets and Hawks, who are tied for the fourth seed. If the Celtics are going to get to that position, they will need to improve on four key aspects of their season.
1) Cut Out the Deep Twos
As mentioned before, the main limiter of the Celtics’ offense is their lack of athletes to generate rim pressure. This results in far too many deep, contested two-point jumpers. Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Kemba Walker are all purveyors of the deep mid-range pull-up, and it can really hurt their offense. Not that mid-range shots are inherently bad, but they can be when taken en masse like this as replacements for threes and rim attempts.
It is hard to scheme more rim attempts when you don’t have the offensive personnel to get them, but there are things the Celtics can do to fix this issue. One thing is to let Brown be the main offensive focal point. Brown is the most athletic of the Celtics’ stars and his handle has become really impressive too. His main issue as an offensive hub is his lack of passing, but Robert Williams III could make up for this as a pop-guy and ball-mover. This could allow Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker to play against a tilted defense and leverage their pull-up shooting more. Putting more pressure on the rim and letting the shooters play more from behind the arc could really make the offense more potent.
2) Empower Robert Williams III
Robert Williams III is one of the most fascinating centers in the league. He is a mobile defender who is also a great rim-protector. He can be an excellent roll-man in either the short roll or in lob situation. He is also a very good passer and is excellent at leveraging his downhill prowess with his passing touch to create opportunities for teammates. The Celtics likely traded Daniel Theis away in hopes of giving Williams III a more clear role as the starting center playing big minutes.
Empowering Williams will be about playing to his strengths. As a defender, Williams III can play multiple different schemes, and letting him run them would be best. He can drop, switch, hedge, and even blitz ball-screens at times and this allows for the Celtics to be wholly unpredictable on this end. Offensively, he could be an excellent trail man, and leveraging his passing ability will maximize the Celtics’ offense to the fullest degree.
3) Trust the Newfound Depth
The Celtics made one of the savvier moves of the trade deadline this year when they picked up Evan Fournier for two second-round picks. Fournier is a top 15 shooting guard in the league and he gives the Celtics some much-needed depth on the wing. He is a good shooter, good passer, a comfortable ball-handler, and a smart defender. He makes good decisions and will help grease the wheels of the offense. They also acquired some floor spacing bigs in Luke Kornet and Moritz Wagner who add an additional element to their offense.
Brad Stevens has already proven receptive to playing these new pieces, but the Celtics would do well to trust them even more. Evan Fournier could potentially fill a Gordon Hayward-lite role and that has been the biggest thing the Celtics are missing this season. He could even close games at the wing if the Celtics go small-ball. Wagner and Kornet only have so much viability, but experimenting with and leveraging their shooting could prove beneficial down the line.
4) Find the Rotation
The most important thing for any team trying to compete is to find a consistent and successful rotation. The NBA is a minute-to-minute game and the best teams can win every minute and a good rotation is vital to that. The Celtics have newfound depth at most positions and once everyone is healthy, they should be able to stagger line-ups to always have playmakers, scorers, and defenders on the floor.
The Celtics’ outlook is far from bleak. Despite their struggles to this point, they are still the most talented team in that fourth to ninth morass in the Eastern Conference. If they can work out these four things, they can work themselves up to homecourt advantage in the playoffs.